Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Obama Phenom: Movement or Fan Club?

It's all about control, isn't it? That's what modern politics is largely about, especially when it comes to campaigns: Controlling the organization, controlling the money, controlling the message, shaping perceptions, managing expectations, etc. This of course is opposed to the idea of a movement which literally moves politics in a certain direction. More broadly, a strong argument can be made that democracy is about the distribution of power and wealth, precisely to counter their concentration. Another word for control of course is power.

There is an ongoing debate about whether what the Obama campaign is building is a movement that genuinely transforms the Democratic Party, US politics and ultimately US society in a genuinely progressive way or whether it essentially is a fan club whose ultimate goal is to get him elected and is likely to crumble once this goal has been achieved. I am afraid to say that so far it looks more like the latter, though it might have the potential to become an actual movement. Needless to say, the strategic implications of this assessment for movement-electoral strategies are enormous.

Top blogger and Obama supporter Matt Stoller claims that
Obama is both transforming Democratic politics through aggressive and hypercompetent web-based organizing on a scale we've never seen, and centralizing power around his campaign by cutting down outside groups.
This is his summary of a longer post he did on May 7 on Obama's Consolidation of the Party, in which he emphasizes that Obama is already the new party leader who "dominates" the party.

At the same time, he refers to the Obama "movement." Curiously, he does not address the contradiction between a top-down approach that centralizes power, in large part precisely to control the message of "unity and hope and change," and a social and political movement that by definition emerges and operates from the bottom up. According to some, a key characteristic of a movement is precisely that no one is in control of it, and least of all the great leader at the top. On the contrary, the leadership might be scared, if not concerned, precisely because it is afraid of losing control. Of course, in election campaigns, you can't have that. In fact, this is probably your greatest fear. You don't want to get "swiftboated," as Kerry did in 2004. Hence the inherent tension between campaigns and movements. Some go so far as to argue that therefore you can't build a movement around a campaign. But perhaps a campaign can contribute to the emergence of a movement?

According to Stoller, the desire of the Obama campaign to control the whole operation does not stop at messaging and framing, but of course includes organization and funding. The Obama campaign has made it clear to donors, including the Democracy Alliance, that they prefer to support their campaign directly, and explicitly freeze out 527s, such as America Votes, which is still around, and the newly founded Progressive Media USA, among others. So the priority to centralize everything within the campaign applies to both voter mobilization and media operations. Interestingly, McCain is trying to do the same, though much less successfully. Again, the ultimate goal seems to be to concentrate control over the message as much as possible. Stoller refers to a piece by Ben Smith and an article in the Washington Post for more details on this effort to marginalize 527s.

Stoller, as do many other bloggers and lots of young people in general, seems to accept Obama's message and runs with it; but he appears to be taking it too fast, and too far, and perhaps too literally: The old style of partisan politics is over, and is now being replaced by a new style of post-partisan (and, very conveniently, also post-racial) politics, reminiscent of third way politics a la Blair and DLC. This is like taking politics out of politics, and what you end up with is post-politics, "politics" after the end of politics, which is largely symbolic politics at the expense of substantive politics.

The problem is that it does not work. Politics means to take sides. As soon as you position yourself, you are located somewhere on the political and ideological spectrum, whether you know and like it or not. It is unavoidable. If you are for privatizing social security, that is your position. If you are in favor of single-payer health care, that is where you stand, etc. Politics is like breathing, you cannot not do it, at least not for very long.

This last point is also emphasized by Adolph Reed, who argues that you can't really build a movement around a campaign. He points out that the movements that moved FDR and then JFK and LBJ in certain directions had organized for many years, long before those politicians came to power. Indeed, as is well known from the history of the civil rights movement, organizing began back in the 1930s in the South, gained momentum in the 1950s, and finally came to fruition in the 1960s. For Reed, the Obama campaign is not a movement; it is a fan club.

By the way, Reed also argues that Obama is not electable essentially because he is making the same mistake that all Democratic presidential candidates have made, which is to run as centrists only to realize that this is not credible enough for too many centrists and conservatives. According to Reed, Clinton was no exception to this pattern; he was saved by Perot. While I am not as pessimistic, looking at Obama's coalition and electability, this is certainly one of the major obstacles to be concerned about.

Be that as it may, perhaps the Obama campaign is a new kind of hybrid between campaign and movement, combining elements of both. This is what Micah Sifry suggests in What is Obama's Movement?

In response to Stoller's Obama's Consolidation of the Party, he partly echoes my own thoughts:
I'm not sure I agree with all of his conclusions about Obama's dominating and remaking the Democratic Party, but there's surely huge potential in their blending of top-down message discipline, net-centric outreach, Alinsky-UFW-Ganz-inspired field work, Camp Obama trainings, Obama Organizing Fellows, and a new 50-state voter registration effort.
And he goes on to pose what is perhaps the key question:
Will the Obama movement be a real movement that pushes its leader to keep his promises? Or will it be more of a personalized movement of followers attracted to a charismatic star? Will the network talk laterally and organize pressure upward? We don't know the full answer yet.
Of course, after the above critique of Stoller's (and many others') celebration of Obama's presumed post-partisan politics, this immediately raises the follow-up question: Keeping which promises exactly, given that the campaigns so far have been largely about symbols at the expense of substance. Given that campaign strategy tends to influence governing strategy - if "only" to get re-elected the next time around - this raises concerns about how Obama might govern and what he would and would not be able to achieve - but that is a topic for another post.

In sum, a campaign is largely about control, and Obama increasingly is in control, not only of his campaign, but of the Democratic Party; a movement is something that is out of control. You have to control a campaign, but you cannot control a movement. Can the two be productively combined? And if so, how?

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